When veteran socialist politician Jeremy Corbyn joined the race to become the next leader of Britain’s Labour Party on June 3, his candidacy was widely dismissed as a token gesture, a sop to Labour’s restless left flank after a bruising defeat to the Conservatives at the UK general election on May 7.
Even Corbyn himself seemed to acknowledge that his role in the contest was largely symbolic. “This decision to stand is in response to an overwhelming call by Labour Party members who want to see a broader range of candidates,” he said. “I am standing to give members a voice.”
But as the summer progressed, something entirely unexpected happened. Corbyn’s campaign took off, and now the MP for Islington North — a liberal enclave of north London — is the favorite to succeed Ed Miliband as Labour leader. In the process, he looks set to defeat three better-known, centrist candidates: Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall.
Corbyn’s sudden ascendancy has been fuelled by an influx of new activists, many of them under the age of 30, into the Labour Party, which has seen its membership grow by more than 60,000 in the three months since the election.
To his supporters, Corbyn, 66, represents an opportunity to reclaim Labour for the left after years of political triangulation under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
While his opponents, eager to win over Conservative and middle-class voters in southern England, adopt increasingly hawkish positions on welfare reform and the national deficit, Corbyn has set out a simple, radical prospectus: end austerity, scrap Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and renationalize key industries.
Much like radical movements in other European countries, such as Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland, he is drawing on reservoirs of public discontent with the political and economic elite that have been building up since the global financial crisis in 2008.
“Corbyn is our chance to have some sort of Syriza moment,” said Philip J. Humblefoot, a graduate from Newcastle who joined Labour in order to vote for Corbyn. “He offers a return to a populist left movement that can represent the 99 percent. We need a Labour Party that stands on a clear anti-austerity agenda.”
Corbyn has been advancing that agenda at a series of lavishly attended meetings across the country, where he has railed against the Conservative government’s extensive spending cuts. Last month, Tory Finance Minister George Osborne instructed his Cabinet colleagues to plan for additional reductions of up to 40 percent in their departmental budgets.
On Monday, 800 people crammed into a community hall in Camden in central London to hear Corbyn pitch his case for the leadership. “All over [Britain] we are getting these huge gatherings of people,” he told the crowd. “The young, the old, black and white and many people that haven’t been involved in politics before. [This is] real democracy.”
In some respects, Corbyn is an unlikely savior of the British left. Those close to him say he is astonished by the success of his candidacy so far.
Although he has been an MP for more than 30 years — he first won his Islington seat in 1983, after a decade of trade union activism — his public profile has, until now, remained relatively low. Only in 2003, when he emerged as a prominent opponent of the war in Iraq and a critic of Tony Blair, who was prime minister at the time and one of the war’s chief architects, did he gain a degree of national recognition.
Hirsute and perennially unkempt, Corbyn looks out of place in the slick modern British era of stage-managed, media-driven politics, but — as in the case of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is performing similarly well in the US Democratic primaries — that only seems to enhance his appeal.
“He’s got integrity and authenticity,” said Paddy Kondracki, a Glasgow-based outreach worker and Corbyn supporter. “He looks like he will stick by his values. He may not achieve them, but at least he’s going to try, and I feel that conviction is lacking in the other candidates.”
If elected party leader — the results of the vote will be announced at a special party conference on Sept. 12 — Corbyn will face a huge strategic challenge, spread across two fronts.
First, he will have to unite the party, which is split between opposing factions.
The Labour hierarchy is furious about Corbyn’s insurgency. Eight Labour shadow cabinet ministers have stated that, should Corbyn win, they will not serve as part of his front-bench team, and some Blairite loyalists have even raised the prospect of an anti-Corbyn coup, although it is far from clear what form that would take.
“I can’t see any case for letting him have two minutes in office, let alone two years,” John McTernan, a former special adviser to Blair, told Spectator magazine in July. “It just beggars belief that there isn’t something that [could be] done swiftly and quickly to restore the party to its sense.”
Second, from a position of severe electoral weakness — and in the face of an overwhelmingly hostile media — Corbyn will have to map a viable route back to power by May 2020, the date of the next British general election.
Corbyn’s detractors claim that he will drag Labour back to the wilderness years of the 1980s, when the party — having shifted to the left under Michael Foot — was consistently routed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. But his supporters argue that, drawing on the successful ‘expand-the-electorate strategy’ deployed by Barack Obama during the 2008 and 2012 U.S. presidential contests, he could build a new progressive coalition, encompassing working-class voters, Greens and, crucially, the young.
“The traditional ideological mechanisms of the right, especially the tabloids, are weaker than they have ever been now that we have a generation raised on the Internet,” said left-wing writer Richard Seymour, the author of Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made.
“And that generation is also less susceptible to ideological blackmail, because it is not scarred by the defeats of the 1980s. They lean to the left … Ed Miliband couldn’t get them to vote, and he lost a lot of potential voters to the Green Party, but Corbyn might.”
Three months ago, few would have considered Corbyn a figure of any real significance in the mainstream of British politics, let alone a serious contender for the Labour leadership. That he now stands on the brink of running Britain’s second-largest party is symptomatic of the increasingly volatile and disruptive mood that has gripped the country after years of biting, politically contentious austerity reforms.
The question now is whether Corbyn is capable of riding the wave of left-wing, grass-roots enthusiasm over the finish line – and then managing the consequences of victory, which are likely to be explosive.
“Jeremy has become very serious about leading the Labour Party,” said the socialist author and activist Tariq Ali, who has known Corbyn for more than 40 years.
“Were he to win, there would be a huge crisis in the parliamentary [Labour] Party, and the Blairite and Brownite careerists would first try sabotage and then either move on to greener pastures in the corporate world or create a pure Blairite party in Parliament.
“If he loses, the young people mobilized by his campaign will be looking for a new home. At present, none exists, though everything that has happened [this summer] indicates that it is much needed.”